In 1955,Satyanarayan Goenka was a successful businessman based in Burma. In his own words,fortune had sided with him and by the age of 31,he had already been the president of the Burmese Chamber of Commerce. It was at this time that he started contemplating what he could do to rid himself of the painful migraine attacks from which he had been suffering for 20 years.
That woeful exprerience drove him in 1955,although with reluctance at first,to a Burmese Vipassana teacher named Sayagya U Ba Khin. Fourteen years later,he would earn the blessing and permission of his teacher to teach Vipassana himself. S N Goenka would arrive at India with a practice that had been lost to the country of its birth for over 2500 years. Seven years later,in 1976,he would set up the first centres teaching the ancient practice on Indian soil since the times of Buddha.
S N Goenka was born on January 30,1924 in a prominent Marwari business family in Burma. For the young,all-conquering man of the world,who later described himself as ‘egoistic’ in that phase of his life,approaching a Vipassana teacher would undoubtedly have been preceded by several reasons and degrees of doubt. Yet when it was proposed by Sayagyi Khin that he would teach Goenka morality,the hitherto merchant had no objection.
In 1969,Goenka started teaching Vipassana in India. Seven years later,in 1976,he opened his first meditation centre called Vipassana International Academy,also known as Dhamma Giri,at Igatpuri near Nasik in Maharashtra. He held 10-day intensive meditation classes in which students were encouraged to be silent and establish a connection with one’s inner self to become aware of every sensation and movement,both mental and physical,and attain harmony and peace through their experience of truth.
Throughout his career as a teacher,Goenka emphasised the important place Vipassana had in the teachings of Buddha,calling it the gateway to Dhamma,or virtue. His opinions and convictions were also at odds with the proclaimed Buddhists of the age,as he was against the practice of rites and rituals that he thought were unnecessary in religious life. Neither did he consider Buddha a god,but an enlightened superhuman who grasped the nature of the universe and of the human. Similarly,he rejected idolatry and glorification of the teacher as a supreme being,and considered the subject of his teaching and its faithful,continued practice as serving the right end.
The Vipassana practice itself is based on the idea of carefully scanning the surface of the body with one’s attention and observing the sensations with equanimity,becoming progressively more aware of their ever-changing nature. To investigate and advance the technique,Goenka founded the Vipassana Research Institute at Igatpuri. This organisation conducts research and has a regular publication record.
Goenka never charged a dime for the course,a policy,he reasoned,aimed at spreading knowledge and its benefits to all not making it a commodity that could be paid for and afforded only by those who have the money. He also remained certain that his path was but one of many to truth,and therefore,worked to eradicate sectarian divisions based on fragile ideological differences.